Chair Force Engineer

Monday, March 27, 2006

Failin' for the first time

The supporters of SpaceX have taken consolation in the fact that of all "first flights" for rockets, about half will end in failure. At the same time, there are things that rocket companies can do to reduce this risk associated with new vehicles. Flight heritage plays a huge role in establishing confidence in new rockets.

The best example of using flight heritage to reduce risk has been seen in the Atlas series since 1991. While the original versions of the Atlas (both the ICBM's and space launchers) had plenty of failures, the General Dynamics engineers learned from their mistakes. The Atlas II first flew in 1991. By the time it made its last launch in 2004, the Atlas II family had made 63 successful launches with no failures.

Similarly, the Atlas III combined the proven Atlas II with the first stage engine for the proposed Atlas V (and later added the dual-engine Centaur for the Atlas V as well.) The Atlas III made six successful flights with no failures, being retired in favor of the new Atlas V.

Since 2002, Atlas V has been a reliable rocket with an unblemished success record. I think that's due in no small part to the use of engines and upper stages that had been validated on the earlier Atlas III.

Where is the lesson for Falcon in all of this? Falcon has the disadvantage of no flight history. SpaceX looked at orbital launch vehicles from the ground up, with cost-savings in mind. Perhaps SpaceX could have built up to an orbital launch with a series of suborbital demonstrators--at the expense of millions more dollars and perhaps years.

Right now, the big rocket vendors (Orbital and BLoMart) are looking at SpaceX with an incredulous eye, but also with more than a hint of fear that they are sunk if SpaceX succeeds. I tend to believe that current rocketry ventures would be more profitable if they had 1) lean management structures with reduced overhead, and 2) economies of scale. SpaceX definitely has the lean management, and they are trying very hard to promote launch rates to support an economy of scale. Perhaps there is money to be saved in the engineering of such rockets, but Falcon I will be proof of that.

Training Day

I see many uncertainties over the horizon in the way that the US Air Force trains its pilots. Most of the uncertainty swirls around the venerable T-38. The plane is aging, with the newest examples having been built in the early 70's. Recent modifications have installed a glass cockpit and enhanced low-altitude performance, with the cost being the loss of supersonic capabilities. With the T-38 unable to simulate supersonic fighters, is it still the plane to be counted on for training our hot-shot fighter jocks?

My idea was to modify the T-38's bigger cousin, the F-5F, into a trainer. The airframes would be new builds, with the shark-nose and leading edge extension upgrades. The old J85 engines would be replaced with something newer, like the Honeywell F124, if found to be cost-effective.

I ran this idea past a wise "Yoda" of the aerospace industry. He pontificated his belief that the secret to training pilots was not in giving them a hot little supersonic jet to fly, but in increasing their flight hours. His suggestion was to take very light bizjets (like the Eclipse 500 and Citation Mustang) and outfit them with cockpits simulating today's modern fighters. Much like the bizjet that NASA uses to simulate Shuttle landings, these jets would have modified flaps to simulate various fighters, bombers, and transports.

The idea of Very Light Jets being used as trainers struck me as being very pragmatic and cost-effective. Granted, they will never come close to the performance of an F-16 or F-22, or even "the BUFF." But they still build familiarity with the type's handling characteristics and allow student pilots to get more flight hours at a reasonable cost.

Friday, March 24, 2006

A Delay of the Inevitable

The only way to describe today's failure of the Falcon I rocket is an extremely disappointing and heartbreaking setback on mankind's voyage to the stars. I don't want to speculate on any causes for failure, and while is analyzing the available video from the launch, I'll be awaiting the official SpaceX investigation and press release.

I was only able to see the first few seconds of the launch's webcast; it would appear that the massive volume of internet traffic from interested persons crashed SpaceX's servers. Obviously, there was a lot at stake in this launch to create this intense interest. The DoD has invested a lot of effort in helping SpaceX get to this point. Many of NASA's vendors for the Commercial Orbital Transport System (including SpaceX) have planned around the Falcon launchers.

I would have some very difficult choices to make if I was in Elon Musk's shoes. I could sink more millions of dollars in continuing into the unknown with the Falcon. I could just as easily retire from the public eye with my remaining fortune and imitate Hugh Hefner--living in a large mansion with at least seven gold-digger girlfriends. But Elon Musk has made himself clear: he is interested in seeing mankind assume its destiny in the stars, and he's willing to go to exteme lengths to do so.

The failure of Falcon I reminded me of the string of rocket failures in the film of The Right Stuff. In spite of their failures, the community never lost faith, and pressed ahead. Example: the demise of Vanguard was a momentary setback, but it was quickly overshadowed by the success of Jupiter C in launching America's first satellite.

The first Falcon I has been lost, but the road to the stars will always be there, beckoning mankind. We will traverse this road, whether sooner or later. Falcon may yet play its role in starting us on this journey. Regardless of the rockets or the personalities behind these rockets, the inevitable trek through the cosmos will be taken.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Aviation Reek & Space Scatology

Within the industry, Aviation Week & Space Technology has a reputation for hard-nosed journalism that produces timely and important stories about aviation and spaceflight. However, Aviation Week has been known to indulge in rumor-mangering in its quest for bigger and better scoops. On those occasions, the magazine falls on its face and gets back up with two black eyes.

Last week, Dwayne Day used his piece on The Space Review and took the magazine to task for its reporting on "Blackstar" and its previous incarnation, "Aurora." Mr. Day certainly drags the reporter in question, William Scott, through the dirt (and deservedly so.) Mr. Scott apparently lacks the engineering credentials to question what his sources tell him; nor has he relied on competent engineers to fact-check him.

Beyond that, Mr. Day lays out Aviation Week's past failures, like exaggerated range figures for the Soviet Bison bomber and rumors of nuclear propulsion for the lackluster "Bounder" bomber. The magazine even claimed in the early 80's that the Soviets had built a "Tesla Death Ray." I'm certain that Soviet counterintel agents, aware of the magazine's reputation, planted these false stories as a cheap way of getting US defense planners to spend billions of dollars in countering nonexistant Soviet "doomsday weapons."

If there is any satisfaction to be found in the duping of a once-respected magazine, it comes in the form of allegations (yet to be proven) that US counterintel agents played the same game. Space pundit Jeffrey Bell has asserted on several occasions a suspicion that the "Aurora" story was concocted by the US in the 80's to force the Soviets into upgrading their air defenses to respond to a nonexistant threat. The timeline of Aurora stories supports this, with the first mention of the mythological spyplane coming from Popular Science in 1986. At the time, America's technological might was in doubt after losing Challenger. For the Aurora believers, the story came at just the right time.

Yet the shoddy reporting of Aviation Week doesn't just extend to Cold War mind games. I spoke with a retired flight test engineer who dropped her subscription to Aviation Week over a decade ago. Her reason for doing so? The magazine was publishing rosy reports about the operational test and evaluation of the C-17 cargo plane. Aviation Week was getting its stories by talking to McDonnell Douglas employees. The Air Force people involved in the testing knew that the stories were a farce, and that McDonnell Douglas wanted to do things during the test program that would have put the lives of airmen in jeopardy.

I hope to get the rest of the story someday. The rush to save a troubled program (as the C-17 was in its early days, before becoming the fine airlifter it is today) is never an excuse to play Russian Roulette with the lives of its airmen. The sins of the dead McDonnell Douglas should be exposed, if for no other reason than to raise awareness of how responsible flight test should be conducted. And magazines that enjoy the status of Aviation Week should do the hard journalistic work to get the full story instead of covering up corporate recklessness.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Back up the ESAS truck...

After rethinking the Crew Launch Vehicle's propulsion choices, NASA is now doing the same for the Cargo Launch Vehicle. With the use of "low-cost, expendible Space Shuttle Main Engines" falling into doubt, NASA is again considering the RS-68, currently used on the Delta IV.

RS-68 is cheaper than an SSME and puts out more thrust, but with significant disadvantages. Most importantly, you lose specific impulse, and thus burn fuel less efficiently. The engine is also heavier (the drawbacks to the heavier engine being offset somewhat by the superior thrust.)

Supporters of the "expendable SSME" make the case that the Cargo Launch Vehicle will need to be enlarged if the RS-68 is chosen instead. That point is certainly true--if you absolutely need to put 125 tons into orbit. If you are willing to fudge on the payload capacity, you can get away with the RS-68. The arguments for man-rating the RS-68 are bunk, too. Show me how the NASA test standards for man-rating the RS-68 are significantly more costly than the testing the RS-68 has been through. If you use the shuttle's statistical failure rate as a guide (1/57 flights will end in loss of crew,) it's apparent that NASA's definition of man-rating is a farce. Besides, a modified SSME will still need to go through the same man-rating process, as it's not the same engine that was originally man-rated.

There are other, undiscussed options available for the Cargo Launch Vehicle. When Boeing was looking at ways to enhance Delta IV's performance, a variant of RS-68 was proposed which would gain more specific impulse by adding regenerative cooling and burning densified (slush?) hydrogen. While this would cost money to develop, the same can be said about an "expendible SSME." Another option is to use stock SSME's, but mount them in a recoverable pod such as Robert Zubrin proposed for his Ares. While I think Zubrin's "Mars Direct" is a highly risky means for exploring Mars, I think that he knew what he was doing when he designed the heavy lifter.

A far-term solution is to resurrect the moribund Space Transportation Main Engine from the NLS and ALS programs. It would have been slightly heavier than the SSME, and had thrust levels and specific impulse that were about halfway between those for the SSME and RS-68. It was only designed for 10 firings, whereas the SSME was designed for 25.

It appears that NASA's attempt at an expendible SSME is an attempt to duplicate the stillborn STME. Unfortunately, the STME was killed because the rockets it was designed for (ALS, NLS, and Shuttle liquid rocket boosters) were either economically unviable or too expensive to develop. NASA now has a rocket to justify the STME, but it came 15 years too late to save the engine project from being cancelled. It's a classical chicken-and-egg dilemma, which can only be avoided by spending large amounts of money upfront to develop the rocket and its engines at the same time (as was done with the Saturn V and F1, or Falcon I and Merlin + Kestrel.)

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Because it's there

Normally I am not fond of the British media (with their papers being either too cynical, or too sensationalist, and having no perspectives between these two extremes.) However, I found a decent story about Project Constellation in The Sunday Times.

My favorite part of the article is the ending:

"Finding out more about the moon will help us understand where the Earth and moon came from,” he said. “There do not have to be good scientific reasons . . . It’s like going up Everest; we want to go to places like the moon and Mars just because they are there."

Ad astra per aspera.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Replacing the Irreplacable

Despite the engineering challenges that would seemingly preclude mythical planes like "Aurora" and "Blackstar," some people still want to believe. I think the reason why they hope against hope is because they can't bring themselves to admit that the Air Force would phase out the awesome SR-71 Blackbird without building something that was even more awesome to take its place.

Yet it's perfectly logical that the Air Force would replace the Blackbird with something much more underwhelming, especially when one looks at why the Blackbird was designed in the first place. The U-2 was (and still is) an excellent recon plane. The problem is that, even though it flies at high altitudes (around 70,000 feet,) it isn't invulnerable to anti-aircraft missiles. The Blackbird was designed to fly even higher above the enemy defenses and to be harder to hit, due to its higher speed.

The problem with the Blackbird as a surveillance system (as opposed to reconnaissance, as recon is targeted, while surveillance is broad) also arises from its defense--its astounding speed. The Blackbird can make a high-speed pass over a target, but it can't stay over it persistently. Back in the days of the cold war, where fixed missile sites drew much of the military's attention, a single pass may have been good enough. In the modern world, persistence is required--especially when you are looking for something like Zarqawi tumbling out the back end of a van and fleeing for his miserable life.

If I had the task of designing an SR-71 replacement, how would I approach this engineering problem? First, I would design the plane to be subsonic and cruise at high altitudes. It would also have large fuel tanks for long loiter time. Stealth may be included as well, to avoid detection by enemies with advanced air defenses.

Interestingly enough, two planes were developed that fit this description. First was the RQ-3 Darkstar, which was terminated in 1999. Second was the RQ-4A Global Hawk, which is flying today in support of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Darkstar was smaller and stealthier, while Global Hawk has exceptional loiter time. Both are unmanned, as the endurance required for an aerial surveillance system would exceed human limitations.

While I think it would be neat if we could build a hypersonic aircraft (or better yet, a two-stage orbital spaceplane,) there isn't an economical justification for the massive cost that these efforts would require. While space tourism and high-speed air travel may be a good reason to pursue these speedsters, reconnaissance and surveillance are not.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Blood Brothers

A team from Fort Bliss in El Paso came out to Kirtland today seeking blood donations for soldiers stationed overseas. For some, this was an opportunity to go above and beyond in supporting the troops. In a global war that has seen horrific wounds (which, in the recent past, would have been untreatable fatalities,) the gift of blood goes a long way in directly saving the lives of those who serve.

Supporting the troops should not be an empty gesture; it should transcend partisan politics and transcend the philosophy of war. As long as brave Americans are in harm's way, we have an obligation to make life as bearable as possible for them.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Somewhere, John Andrews is smiling

Clark Lindsay at HobbySpace has a series of posts (here, here, and here) discussing "Blackstar," a two-stage orbital spaceplane that has been championed by Aviation Week for the past 16 years. The story sounds like "Aurora" under another name. The reaction of several co-workers has been one of amusement; it would certainly solve a lot of our space launch problems if such a system did exist. For me, most of the amusement stems from the fact that Aviation Week's best source appears to be a plastic model kit from 13 years ago.

Back in 1993, the Testors plastic model company unveiled its own "Project Aurora" model kit, based on the eyewitness sightings that contributed to Aviation Week's stories. John Andrews, who designed the kit at Testors, certainly had a keen mind for the design of aircraft. Bearing in mind Lockheed's attempts to launch a Mach 4 drone (D-21, Project Tagboard) from the back of a modified A-12 Blackbird, Andrews created an even bigger, Mach 7 version of the concept. Andrews's "Aurora" consisted of two massive airplanes: the 80' long XR-7 Thunder Dart, and the 160' SR-75 Penetrator mothership. Until the "Blackstar" story was reported, Aviation Week had never made this mothership-daughtercraft connection.

In the speculative model, the SR-75 would carry the XR-7 on its back to high altitudes. From there, the XR-7 would light its "pulse detonation wave engines" and conduct recon missions at Mach 7. After all, reasoned Andrews and other Aurora believers, the Air Force has to have something better than the SR-71 Blackbird. They can't possibly be retiring the SR-71 without something that goes faster!

Of course, there were problems with Andrews's logic.

--The XR-7 would not be carried on the SR-75's back, as this style of carriage wasn't very successful during Project Tagboard (and one of the aircrew involved paid the ultimate price in the ensuing crash.) The daughter craft would almost certainly be carried underneath the mothership, just like X-15+B-52, Pegasus+L-1011, and SpaceShipOne+White Knight.

--Pulse Detonation Wave Engines, to the best of my knowledge, have never gone beyond the developmental stage. Popular Science did a story about Pulse Detonation Engines back in 2003 or 2004, but viewed them as a performance enhancement for existing turbofan engines.

--The SR-71 need not be replaced by a faster plane. In the case of the SR-71, high speed and high altitude were the "survivability conops." In the U-2 and Global Hawk, high altitude is the survivability conops. In the Predator, stealth (being small and flying at low altitudes where radar isn't effective) is part of the survivability conops, although most people aren't very worried about a Predator getting killed in the first place. From where I sit, the Air Force's recon needs look like they are being well-met by existing U-2, Global Hawk, and Predator assets.

--Operational hypersonic systems are very difficult to maintain. The space shuttle is proof of this, although a Mach 7 system might not have the same difficulties that the orbital Shuttle does.

--Andrews proposed an active cooling system using the vehicle's methane fuel. The problem with methane or any hydrocarbon as a coolant is that heat breaks the molecules down, creating the sooty effect known as "coking."

--According to popular lore, Aurora's contrail looks like a string of donuts or sausages. Pictures of this contrail are available on the internet. I must also confess to seeing strange contrails in the sky--coming from behind normal passenger planes. I asked a professor (whose background was in propulsion and computational fluid dynamics) about these contrails, and he asserts that they are produced by traditional engines under certain conditions (a conclusion I fully agree with.)

--Andrews's SR-75 would likely be limited to Mach 2 speeds, if it was powered by four F100 engines like Andrews claimed. It would only have roughly two-thirds the thrust of the XB-70's six J93 engines. It would also lack the optimized design of the XB-70, which relied on downswept wingtips and other features to ride on its shockwave and reduce drag at supersonic speeds. The B-1A, which is smaller than Andrews's SR-75 and had more thrust, was only a Mach 2 airplane (and a freaking awesome one at that.)

Having already scored a commercial success with 1986's "F-19 Stealth Fighter," Testors once again had a model kit that was being mentioned on nightly news broadcasts due to its controversial subject matter. While the SR-75 and XR-7 did not surpass the F-19 model in terms of sales (the F-19 is the best-selling model kit in history,) they are quite large in 1/72 scale and make for interesting conversation pieces.

Today, few people remember the Testors "Aurora" models. The kits aren't in production anymore. John Andrews passed away in April 1999. The name "Aurora" is rarely mentioned, except by people who love conspiracies and spend all day watching the Nevada skies. All of a sudden, Aviation Week is trying to bring it to the forefront again. I can't help but think that John Andrews, from his position in the afterlife, is taking great humor in Aviation Week and the Blackstar believers.

Friday, March 10, 2006

The Cat's Last Prowl

Thirty-six years after its first flight, the F-14 Tomcat has completed its last combat cruise prior to retirement. It's truly a sad day for naval aviation, and it marks the end of the "Top Gun" era, when macho "Mavericks" punched holes in the sky.

The Tomcat was born in the 1960's, after the "TFX" concept for a multirole, multi-service aircraft led to the disastrous F-111B "Sea Pig." While the Sea Pig was a failure from the instant it was conceived by Robert McNamara, the Tomcat mated the Sea Pig's Phoenix missile system and radar (perhaps the only good system in the Sea Pig) with a competent, Mach 2 airframe.

Testament to the Tomcat's design was the fact that it was the only fighter plane that was truly feared by Soviet pilots. With its ability to engage six enemy aircraft from long range, it's no wonder why they felt that way. Prior to the Phoenix's retirement in 2004, it could kill any aircraft before it was spotted by the enemy's radar.

While Tomcats would shoot down four Libyan fighters during freedom of navigation exercises in the 80's, it was the F-15 Eagle that ruled the skies of the 90's due to its sophisticated friend-or-foe ID systems which prevented many friendly fire incidents. However, the Tomcat was redefined as a precision strike plane which carried the fight to the Taliban in the dark days after 9/11, while its little brother, the F/A-18 Hornet, suffered from a shorter range and the need for more refuelings during the Afghan missions. Up until the very end, Tomcat pilots were performing close air support for American forces in Iraq.

Unfortunately, naval aviation has been irreparably damaged by poor planning over the last 30 years. The F/A-18 Hornet replaced the venerable A-7, even though it lacked the A-7's range. The long-range A-6E Intruder was retired with no real replacement--the A-6F upgrade was prematurely killed, and the pie-in-the-sky A-12 fell victim to an unrealistic schedule, weight growth, and excessive secrecy surrounding stealth technologies. The Tomcat has been all-but-replaced with the Super Hornet, a slower airplane whose only real virtue is the ability to bring unused weapons back to the carrier.

While the mystique of the Tomcat came from a Hollywood movie and crazy Tom Cruise, the heritage of the Tomcat is a proud testimony to the old Grumman Aerospace. It was the Grumman "Iron Works" that introduced folding wings on the F4F Wildcat (the best naval fighter we had when WWII started,) brought Japan's air forces to its knees with the F6F Hellcat, brought naval aviation into the jet age with the F9F Panther, and provided the Navy with its heavy hitter, the A-6 Intruder. The Tomcat was every bit as tough as its predecessors and served ably in defense of this great nation. The Tomcat was also the last hurrah for a once-great company that now (as Northrop Grumman) is a hollow shell of its former self, and doesn't even assemble manned airplanes anymore.

Grumman and the Tomcat will both be missed.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

The Ambiguously-Shaped Capsule

When I first posted on SpaceX's "Dragon" capsule, I jumped to the conclusion that it would make a nose-first reentry like CORONA and the t/Space CXV. After reading some comments on Selenian Boondocks, I'm not so sure.

Because there is no docking hatch in the base of the gumdrop-shaped capsule, there is no reason why Dragon couldn't reenter base-first. Even if there was a hatch, a reentry could still be successful, as proven by the reflight of the Gemini 2 capsule.

Still, I am inclined to think that it makes a nose-first reentry. Why do I suspect that? Because Dragon (in the next-to-last illustration on this page from Spaceref) retains its nose cap on a hinge instead of discarding it. It tells me that it will need to shield the berthing mechanism during reentry. This was not necessary on Apollo and other capsules that made a base-first reentry.

This leads to an interesting possibility: could Dragon be designed to reenter in both base-first and nose-first attitudes? This would create a lot of new challenges, like the need for two sets of parachutes, or at least a parachute that could deploy in both orientations. But it would ensure that reentry was a lot safer if you could make a stable ballistic reentry from a wide range of spacecraft orientations.

A Cry for the Fallen

We all lost a very special person on Sunday, March 5. Craig Brooks, a friend from college, was killed in a motorcycle accident. He would have commissioned into the US Air Force in May.

Craig worked hard, and he played hard. I didn't know Craig as well as I should have (as he always tried to go out of his way to know me,) but I definitely saw the side of him that worked hard. We had shared several ROTC classes and we had been in two flights together. He was never satisfied with half-measures when we worked on projects as a group. He never tried to "fly under the radar" in the cadet corps. He was always taking the lead out front, going the extra mile and mentoring the new cadets. His motivation was apparent and infectious. Without him, the "Kilo Killaz" of Fall 2002 wouldn't have been the best flight of the semester.

It's always tough when a light as bright as Craig's, filled with so much potential and zeal, gets snuffed out in its prime. We will never find anything if we try to search for sense in the senseless. We will find Craig's light if we remember him for who he was, and if we keep his zeal in our hearts every day for the rest of our lives.

Godspeed, friend. Until we meet again someday, we will keep the flame burning.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Draggin' Quest

SpaceX has finally (unofficially) unveiled designs for the Dragon, a seven-man spacecraft for crew and cargo missions to the International Space Station. The launch vehicle will be a single-core Falcon IX. While the industry has expected SpaceX to branch out into manned spaceflight, the devil is in the details.

Much like t/Space, SpaceX is using a gumdrop-shaped capsule based on the old Discoverer / Corona series. It can truly be said that similar requirements dictate similar solutions. Aside from shape and size, that's where the similarities end.

In a sense, the SpaceX Dragon is less risky when compared to the t/Space CXV. Dragon's propulsion system is housed in an expendible service module on the wide end of the capsule, while t/Space had a self-contained propulsion system that could presumably be reused after each mission. Because the wide end of Dragon is covered by the propulsion module, the docking system is on the "nose" of the capsule. This hinge line creates a potential weakness in the thermal protection system.

SpaceX is predicting a 2009 first flight of Dragon, making it eligible for Robert Bigelow's "Americas Space Prize." However, 2009 looks dubious if Falcon I slips any further than the end of this month, or if Falcon IX misses its first flight date in 2007.

When Bigelow announced his prize a little over a year ago, I thought his deadline of January 2010 was unreasonable. If Bigelow truly wants to see manned orbital flight by the private sector, he should seriously consider dropping the time restriction. He's only giving firms five years to compete for his prize. By contrast, the less challenging X-Prize took eight years from inception to completion. It didn't hurt that the X-Prize had the genius of Burt Rutan and the funding of Paul Allen in its favor.

While SpaceX has sufficient funding and its own resident geniuses, America's Space Prize is an unprecedented undertaking. Can they meet Bigelow's unreasonable deadline, or will they take a step back, slow things down a notch, and shoot for the more lucrative goal: sustained human presence in space?

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Blood for Oilpan

Back on January 28, I took my car to the Firestone on Central avenue for an oil change. I had never been raped in the face (figuratively) prior to that point.

I guess things got started on the wrong foot when I brought my car in at 3 PM (on the dot) for my oil change appointment. Much to my chagrin, it was another hour before they started work on my car. I whittled the time away by watching a Spanish-language dubbing of Memphis Belle on Telemundo and reading the story of President Reagan's shooting and recovery in Readers' Digest.

When they finally got my "White Knight" up on the jacks, they only made matters worse. Les, the mechanic whose facial hair resembled the fur on Robin Williams's back, informed me that most of the threads on the oil pan for the drain plug had been stripped. He didn't take responsibility for it and tried to blame it on an overtightening by the people at Kirtland's auto shop who did my last oil change. He told me that I'd have to have the hole drilled and retapped for a larger plug, but he told me that he'd sell me an extra-long plug as a quick fix. He gave me some bullshit about the oilpan being from a junkyard due to some writing that's allegedly on the bottom. (The original owner of my car told me about a replacement bumper, but nothing about the oilpan.) Seeing no alternative to this auto equivalent of sexual assault, I relented just so I could get my car back.

A while later, I bought a third drain plug from Auto Zone for a whopping $2.12 (compared to the >$40 cost of having a machinist redrill and retap the hole.) Slightly larger in diameter than the original plug, it's self-tapping and has no need to drill out the original threads in the oil pan. Next time my oil is changed, I'll take it to a competent shop and have this self-tapping plug put in.

The unfortunate experience left me with the impression that the Firestone station on Central is a bush-league outfit that doesn't honor its appointment times, doesn't carry self-tapping plugs, and doesn't have competent mechanics. I harbor a lot of anger towards Les, who wouldn't take the hit for his screwup and wanted to sell me on a high-cost solution to the problem.

Nevertheless, there may be a happy solution to this auto malfeasance. I recently received an unexpected phone call from Firestone's customer service department. Calmly and assertively, I explained to the service rep how badly I was raped by the Firestone station. The rep seemed very apologetic. Hopefully I'll be hearing back from Firestone on their plans for atonement. If not, they'll be hearing from me when I get the "extra long plug" back from my next oil change. I'll make sure to check the plug length and see if Les was blowing smoke up my tailpipe.

The moral of the story is to do as much auto maintenance by yourself as possible. If not possible, find a competent and honest mechanic. I can honestly say that I enjoy getting my hands dirty and tearing the car apart, assuming that I have the right tools for the job and I am sure that I'm not going to screw anything up. Don't get suckered in by the Chilton guides because they're worthless. Make friends with the sales associates at Auto Zone, Checkers, and Pep Boys; they can often be very helpful. Invest in the special tools you will need to work on modern cars.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

A Low-Risk Acquisition

The most interesting alt-space tidbit this week is George French's acquisition of a majority share in Kistler. Of all proposed reusable launchers, Kistler's design had to be the most conservative possible approach (and thus, the one with the best chance of succeeding, assuming sufficient funding was available.) Now that George French is sitting in Kistler's driver seat, the funding issue will hopefully be moot.

When Pioneer Rocketplane first started, they advocated the aerial propellant transfer approach, championed by Mitchell Burnside Clapp. A few years back, Rocketplane saw the writing on the wall and realized that the real money was not in satellite launch, but in space tourism. The XP spacecraft was designed, using a significant degree of LearJet 25 components. Aerial propellant transfer was unneeded to meet the much lower energy requirements for a space tourism vehicle.

The acquisition of Kistler indicates to me that Rocketplane views the Kistler two-stage approach as the next step beyond their space tourism plans. While they may not have totally abandoned aerial propellant transfer (their proposed Pathfinder had potential for lowering the cost of delivering small sats to orbit,) it's a telling sign that the conservative Kistler design is Rocketplane's preferred option.

Kistler has tried to rally support by saying that their vehicle is 75% complete. While they've certainly made it a lot farther than other space startups, there is still a large gap between hardware fabrication and the actual testing and operations of the rocket. Hopefully Rocketplane's assistance will help Kistler get to where it needs to be, instead of simply raiding the Kistler program for select technologies that can be applied to Rocketplane products.